Len Goodman, for many years the head judge on Dancing with the Stars, has gone to the big ballroom in the sky. He passed away Sunday, April 23rd, just a few days shy of his 79th birthday.
As a young man, the elegant Goodman was an apprentice welder for a famous British shipbuilding company. In his twenties he got into competitive dancing and became a champion in Great Britain. Relatively late in life, he enjoyed fame as a dancing expert and keen-eyed judge on two very successful competition reality shows. That began in The UK on Strictly Come Dancing, where he topped the judging panel from 2004 to 2016.
Goodman was front and centre when ABC launched Dancing with the Stars in 2005. Despite a few serious health setbacks, including bouts with cancer, he remained part of that series until 2022.
The dapper Englishman played the sometimes irascible, no-nonsense senior judge to the hilt. He also did so on at least one Television Critics Association press tour I attended. Together with Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba, he was part of the most together judging panels on reality television. Each brought their own style to the task, with flamboyant Bruno often standing up and hollering in ALL CAPS. There was no question, however, as to who was boss. Considered the hardest judge to please, a “10 from Len” was the goal of every dance pair on each series.
From 2012 through 2015, I was asked to recap episodes of Dancing with the Stars on a weekly basis for The Toronto Star. While this was the very definition of being paid to watch television, I enjoyed the assignment more than I anticipated. You had to admire how hard most of the celebrity dancers worked to keep up with their pro partners. The judges and original host Tom Bergeron all added to the fun.
One thing I admired that perhaps not every critic else did: Goodman was not above reaching for the corniest quip when assessing each dance.
“I expected the Shark to be a fish out of water,” he once said after watching Shark Tank venture capitalist Robert Herjavec spin around with dance partner (and future wife) Kym Johnson.
Goodman was, however, man enough to admit when he got a score wrong, as he did in judging former Green Bay Packer Donald Driver. The judge even used a football analogy, pointing out how referees on the field sometimes get it wrong.
Goodman was also delightfully capable of going off script and getting peevish, particularly with the pro dancers. One he picked on often was Maksim Chmerkovskiy. One time he started scolding him with, “I’ve been in this business nearly 50 years…” before Maks shot back, “Maybe it’s time to get out.” Later that season, the two awkwardly peddled around on a bicycle built for two just to show all was sort of forgiven.
The series has survived several hosting and timeslot changes as well as a move to ABC’s streaming partner, Disney+. The celebrities don’t seem as famous anymore, with too many reality stars and Disney-linked pretenders in the mix. For a while, the older-skewing series was dropped altogether by Canadian broadcasters.
A 32nd season has already been ordered, with Tyra Banks out as host and Julianne Hough set to co-host with former Mirror Ball winner Alfonso Ribeiro. Goodman had already departed last season. He’d probably be the first to say that the show must go on, just watch your arms, smile more and pick up the pace.